On 11 March 2011, Japan was hit by the fourth most powerful earthquake in recorded history. Almost 16,000 people died, many in the tsunami that devastated the north-east of the country afterwards. The footage was memorable: that eerie black water slowly fanning out across entire towns. Fishing trawlers floating past office buildings. Cars and buses lifted from the road and turned over, as if by a child’s hand. Houses gently carried off into the sea.
Those images were used during my undergraduate degree to teach us about what philosopher Immanuel Kant called “the sublime”: a feeling of being so overwhelmed by the size or power of something – particularly a natural event – that it inspires a feeling of awe.
And they were the images used just four months later by Norio Sasaki, the head coach of Japan’s women’s national team, to inspire them to complete the most remarkable run of any Asian nation in World Cup history. Before each game in Germany, Sasaki would play the grainy footage to his players; a reminder that their efforts had significance beyond the borders of the sport.
Japan had never made it out of a group stage before and nobody expected them to do it now. They’d stumbled into 2011 after a poor showing in the Asian Cup, but two wins against New Zealand and Mexico put them on course for their first quarter-final. Their luck seemed to run out when they were drawn against the hosts.
But there was a sense of destiny, almost a cosmic apology, to that game. After a tense 90 minutes, it was Karina Maruyama – one of two players who had worked at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant before the meltdown – who scored the winner. A semi-final against 2003 runners-up Sweden was next and, again, Japan progressed thanks to a Sweden own goal and two Hedvig Lindahl errors. Something, you felt, was on their side.
That something, for me, was epitomised by Homare Sawa. 2011 was Sawa’s fifth World Cup, tied with Brazil’s Formiga for most appearances ever – though you wouldn’t know it from the amount of ground she covered. She wore the armband at the age of 32, and in a foreshadowing of Megan Rapinoe in 2019, went on to win the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball. Like Rapinoe, it had as much to do with what was happening off the field as what was happening on it.
The final in Frankfurt was where it all crystallised. The USA were powerhouses of the women’s game and many thought they’d sail to the title. But as goalkeeper Hope Solo said afterwards: “I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for [Japan].” The Americans charged out from the opening whistle: Lauren Cheney’s strike was swept aside within 30 seconds. Heather O’Reilly wreaked havoc down the right, Rapinoe down the left. Abby Wambach hit the crossbar. But Japan stood firm, a break-wall against those thunderous waves.
It took a young Alex Morgan to open the scoring: a galloping counter in behind. But another moment of fortune drew Japan level, a panicked clearance finding Aya Miyama in the six-yard box instead to make it 1-1.
Momentum was in Japan’s favour as extra-time began. Just before the interval, the USA took the lead. Morgan danced to the by-line and fizzed a cross into Wambach. Header. Goal. Exhaustion. Elation. And a likely game-winner.
But Japan, whose resilience was forged in something greater than football, fought on. And with six minutes left, Homare Sawa scored that goal. Against this force of nature that was the US women’s national team, the 5ft 5in midfielder struck, redirecting a corner kick with a flick of her heel. It was miraculous. It was sublime. My awe then was not like Kant’s, though: it wasn’t directed at the wave, but rather towards the woman who never gave up in the face of it.
The US would lose the resulting shootout 3-1, bringing the World Cup to Asia for the first time. And Japan’s women’s team became to their devastated nation what Sawa became to me: a symbol of perseverance and heart – a triumph of hope against all the odds.